Help that Hurts: Considering the Long-Term Cost of Missions Subsidy

There will never be enough full-time missionaries to reach the whole world. It is encouraging, then, that churches are embracing the priority of fulfilling the Great Commission and mobilizing teams to engage the lost and unreached.

Westerners are often unprepared, however, for the poverty and economic disparity they find overseas. It’s commendable that many respond with a compassionate desire to help out of the abundance of their affluence, but they are often unaware of the dangers of a valid spiritual ministry being overshadowed by material assistance. Providing financial support from abroad and the subsequent dependency created can become detrimental to the health and growth of a church and can stifle its potential for reproduction.

Unhelpful Support

There are ways to share the material and financial resources we have been abundantly blessed with in a way that can advance the kingdom without creating a dependency of local churches and the economically deprived. Providing training, Bibles, and partnering in evangelistic outreach can strengthen and multiply the witness of local believers. But churches need to exist, grow, and multiply within their own culture and economy without dependency on outside resources.

Churches need to exist, grow, and multiply within their own culture and economy without any dependency on outside resources.

We have made many mistakes over the years of missions work around the world.  One of the errors has been trying to accelerate growth by an infusion of financial aid to build churches and support pastors. The result almost invariably was a welfare mentality among the recipients of the support.  

Well-intended financial assistance tends to create dependence, and it handicaps the initiative and faith that would nurture spontaneous growth. There are exceptions, but the following problems regularly occur when Americans subsidize the work of churches and pastors.

  • Potential growth is stalled because locals develop a mindset that it cannot be done without funds from an overseas benefactor.
  • The congregation loses a sense of ownership and responsibility since others provide for the financial needs of the pastor or the church.
  • Jealousy often develops among the pastors and churches who do not receive assistance.
  • Cooperation between churches diminishes since they no longer need to work together in mutual support, encouragement, and dependency.
  • In the long-term, support breeds resentment because it creates a patronizing dependency, especially if the support is not sustained indefinitely. The donor often believes the assistance will be temporary, only until the church can grow to self-support. But that seldom happens.
  • People are deprived of growing in their own faith, learning to be dependent upon God, and discovering that he is sufficient for all their needs.
  • Subsidy propagates an institutional, Western model of a church that sees a building and a paid pastor as essential rather than encouraging a reproducible biblical model of the church as gathered believers responsible to and for their own leadership.
  • The work of field missionaries is often undercut because they are seen as uncaring simply because they cannot give the same material and financial aid provided by stateside churches and volunteers.

Growth of the Church is Most Clearly Evident Where Financial Support is Not Emphasized

We have consistently seen the highest rate of church growth in some of the most impoverished countries in the world. There were years when Baptists in Malawi started almost one church for every two that were already organized. Bangladesh reported hundreds of new churches started although the annual per capita income was less than one hundred dollars a year.

In just four years, churches in Cambodia have grown from zero to seventy-three organized congregations standing on their own feet. The explosive growth of the church in China would never have occurred if the dependency on missionary societies continued.

We have consistently seen the highest rate of church growth in some of the most impoverished countries in the world. 

On the other hand, growth proceeds slowly and incrementally where well-meaning supporters from abroad insist on providing the financial means. After the fall of the Soviet Union, state conventions in the United States partnered with the various republics. In one state partnership, every new church planting effort was funded by churches in America. They started twenty churches in five years, few of which survived once the subsidy ceased. Meanwhile, a neighboring republic saw more than two hundred new churches planted through a partnership that provided no financial support for local churches.

Bad Funding Can be Debilitating over Time

When Southern Baptists first began mission work in India, only a few medical missionaries were allowed in the country. There was an obvious evangelistic response from the beginning. It appeared the only way to accomplish church growth was to hire national evangelists to follow up the response and plant churches.

They usually continued to pastor the new churches, which, of course, required the mission to provide a building. The only way for the work to continue to grow was to hire more evangelists/pastors and build more churches. In ten years, twenty-one churches had started, but the growth was already putting a strain on limited mission resources.

Recognizing the debilitating situation, an assessment of the methodology was carried out, and subsidy to pastors and churches was phased out. Indigenous churches became models of self-support from their inception. It gradually was accepted that buildings and paid pastors were superfluous to the spiritual nature of a church.

Without the dependency on foreign aid, there was nothing to inhibit the spontaneous multiplication of congregations wherever believers were won and gathered for worship, witness, fellowship, and ministry. Over the next ten years, the number of churches grew from 21 to 440.

I recently visited one of the most impoverished, restricted countries in the world. The average monthly salary was equivalent to nine dollars. The wind of the Spirit was blowing, resulting in phenomenal numbers of baptisms and church growth. One of the pastors said that he did not suffer because of what he did not have. He continued, “Because we have God, we have everything.”

Jerry Rankin served for seventeen years as president of IMB before retiring in 2010 to Mississippi where he continues mission consultation, mobilization, and adjunct teaching at several colleges and seminaries. Earlier he served with his family in South and Southeast Asia for twenty-three years, including church planting in Indonesia and serving as an area director in India. You can follow him on Twitter @rankinonmission.

For further reading on this topic, check out When Helping Hurts